I spend a generous proportion of my time with some of the greatest creative intelligences the world has ever known (definitely more than I spend on housework, admin, and the perpetual hunt for that missing sock.) It’s a never-failing source of delight and energy to explore the worlds of people like Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki, Hans Holbein, Basho and Cristobal Balenciaga. Nobody could delve into the fascinating twilight world of Japan in the early 1900s, hang out with such lords of louche as Ippei Okamoto, and not be changed by the experience. The fact that many of the people who inspire me are long dead is completely irrelevant, because their work is still so vibrantly alive.
Still, it means a lot of solitary lunches. So when I have the chance to talk to others about the things I love, or get really hands-on encouraging people to create something new, it’s a treat. Last week it felt like my birthday and Christmas came at once when I was invited to the Barbican to give a talk and a masterclass as part of their new animation exhibition Watch Me Move: The Animation Show. With almost 30 big-screen movies from around the world, plus rare shorts and screenings in the Gallery, and more than a dozen talks and master classes, there’s an arc of energy around the exhibition, which is another treat in itself.
I was talking about the history of Chinese animation and its links with Japan – something that concerned people I admire greatly, like Tezuka and Tadahito Mochinaga, whose alter ego was Fan Ming and who was probably the only 20th-century director to have worked in both the Chinese and Japanese animation industries. More and more information is emerging about the flowering of Chinese animation from the mid-1920s to 1966, when the Cultural Revolution stopped it in its tracks. With an eager, interested audience, I couldn’t fail to have fun. And the icing on the cake was that I gave a masterclass with Reza Ben Gajra afterwards.
Reza is one of the people I most look forward to working with whenever I get the chance. Not only is he a gifted creator himself, but he absolutely loves unleashing the creative force in other people. He’s an expert in computer animation, handling Final Cut Pro like, well, a pro, and to top it off he’s funny. 15 people aged from pre-teen upwards came along for the ride, and by the end of the workshop, not only did they all know more about the history and techniques of animation, but everyone had made a couple of seconds of their own, original story and art come to life.
If you can make a mark with a pencil, you can draw, and if you can draw or cut paper, you can animate. Our group of artists made 15 very different animations using many different methods – papercuts, altering and re-shooting the frame, taking a line for an abstract walk, stepping into shot. The stories were amazing – love and tragedy under a streetlamp, delicately beautiful plants with their own personalities, a huge wave tossing a small boat. There was a face that came out of nowhere and became something else, a being fighting to wrest form and identity from the primeval ooze, a glorious mermaid and a beautifully animated but completely pathetic shark. With a pair of magic Macs, the participants shot their own frames. Before we left, everyone saw their ideas move. Reza is currently doing a polish-up edit before posting the work on his YouTube channel Rezanimates. Look for it there in a couple of weeks, and check out the other work on show.
I’ve worked with the Barbican’s Cinema and Education teams for years, and am always amazed at the ideas they come up with and their willingness to try something new. The curators there all seem to have a rare knack of being genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about art in all its forms, yet not at all precious and exclusive, as some galleries (and, alas, some artists,) can be. Their arts programmes are genuinely inclusive, and they inspire me to work at the top of my game.
Comer and play with us sometime.